When In Doubt, MBA’s Turn To ‘Bible’

Leslie Kwoh | Wall Street Journal

Columbia Business School student Johannes Preis, left, and fellow student Travis Reaves during a mock interview session last month.

On some college campuses, it’s hailed as a Bible—the guide every M.B.A. or any aspiring consultant needs to ace some of the toughest job interviews. It even comes with a set of commandments; the first: “Listen to the Question.”

Now in its seventh edition, “Case in Point” has become the biggest business book you’ve never heard of, a best seller with more than 100,000 copies sold in print and electronic versions, according to its author, Marc Cosentino. Published in 1999, the 228-page paperback explains and unpacks the open-ended business dilemmas—known as case questions—that characterize interviews at management-consulting firms like McKinsey & Co.

“It’s the first book people go to,” says Ben Nowell, the 40-year-old president of the Columbia Graduate Consulting Club, a group of several dozen students who meet to stage mock interviews using questions pulled from “Case in Point” and other sources.

The guide’s popularity offers a glimpse into the world of aspiring management consultants, who often spend months preparing for interviews at one of the so-called Big Three firms: McKinsey, Bain & Co. and Boston Consulting Group Inc.

From now until the end of the year, students will cram for on-campus interviews, which generally take place from October through December. The prize: a job with a six-figure starting salary and an entrée into an elite group that includes prominent CEOs and entrepreneurs.

Mr. Cosentino, 57 years old, says he never imagined his book—now available in four languages—would become a cult classic. The latest edition, which sells for $30, currently tops Amazon.com’s AMZN +0.22% best-seller chart in the consulting category, and is the site’s 879th most popular book overall as of Wednesday.

According to Nielsen BookScan, 17,000 copies of the latest edition and about 58,000 copies of all other editions have been sold to date, though this figure doesn’t include e-books sold on the Kindle or bulk purchases from colleges, such as the 200 copies Harvard Business School orders annually.

The studying is all to prepare for an intense process that will ultimately “separate the wheat from the chaff,” Mr. Cosentino says. “You’re asking people to put in 70 hours of prep work for an interview they might not get.”

Between 20% and 30% of the graduating classes from top business schools like Harvard, Columbia and Stanford University take jobs in consulting after graduation, according to recent statistics from those schools.

Mr. Cosentino, who didn’t have a background in management consulting when he wrote the guide, says the book’s aim isn’t only to help students ace the case interview process, but also to train them to “think like a senior manager.”

In consulting interviews, which typically last 30 to 45 minutes, a partner or senior consultant from the firm spends the first half probing the interviewee’s leadership experience. He or she then presents a scenario, often inspired by a real-life company predicament, such as whether to break into a new market.
Armed with nothing more than a pencil and pad, the interviewee must devise a solution on the spot—all while doing the math aloud so the interviewer can evaluate how he or she thinks.

Interviewers often intentionally throw candidates off by telling them their answers are wrong, just to see how they will react, Mr. Cosentino says, so he simulates that approach with the students he tutors. As the student begins outlining a solution, he repeatedly interrupts and tells them they’re wrong, pushing to see whether the student can defend the argument without getting defensive.

Brian Rolfes, director of global recruiting at McKinsey, says the firm doesn’t use such tactics. “We don’t throw curveballs,” he says. “[The interview] is meant to be a dialogue.”

Bain global chief talent officer Russ Hagey said “there may be others” who try to throw candidates off, but his firm does not subscribe to this approach. “We really want to put people in a position to show their best.”

“If you’re not prepared, you could be right for consulting, but you’ll probably fail,” says Christopher Malone, a 30-year-old BCG consultant who graduated earlier this year from Dartmouth College’s Tuck School of Business, where he led the consulting club.

Mr. Malone, who interviewed at four firms in January 2011 and eventually received two internship offers, including one from BCG that led to a full-time job, says he used “Case in Point” but quickly moved on to other prep materials. While he found the book too “rigid” and formulaic in its approach, he says it was nevertheless a good primer in introducing him to some of the basic principles of case studies.

Many take the “Case Commandments” as gospel. They were evident during a recent practice session at Columbia Business School, when Travis Reaves, 28, instructed Johannes Preis, 27, to determine whether a carbonated beverage brand should launch flavored bottled water. Mr. Reaves, a former McKinsey summer intern, has already secured a full-time job at the firm after he graduates next year, while Mr. Preis is currently in the midst of interviews at several firms.

After asking several clarifying questions (Commandment No. 5) about the product name and market size, Mr. Preis spent two minutes scribbling furiously on a piece of paper and organizing his areas of focus (Commandment No. 6) into plant utilization, regional markets and management expertise. By the time he summarized his rationale to Mr. Reaves (Commandment No. 13), he had filled four sheets of paper. His conclusion, after crunching sales figures, calculating the profit margin and converting ounces to gallons: For a 12.5% slice of the market, the product was “feasible.”

Mr. Cosentino began writing study guides for consulting interviews while working at Harvard’s undergraduate career office in the 1990s. The school published his initial guides, but he later moved to self-publish “Case in Point.” He now runs a business consulting would-be consultants.

Consulting firms seem to view Mr. Cosentino with ambivalence. He recalls how a BCG partner once chided him for revealing a current case-study question to a group of students. But BCG also in 2007 ordered 1,000 copies of the book to give to prospective applicants, he says. A BCG spokesman couldn’t confirm whether either incident took place.

But the popularity of “Case in Point,” along with other study guides such as Victor Cheng’s “Case Interview Secrets,” may work against aspiring students.

Mel Wolfgang, BCG’s head of recruiting in the Americas, interviews about 100 students every year and says he can tell when someone sounds too “scripted.”

“It’s sort of painful,” he says, about hearing such responses. “Preparation is crucial. Overpreparation can be fatal.”

Write to Leslie Kwoh at leslie.kwoh@wsj.com

A version of this article appeared November 1, 2012, on page B6 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: When in Doubt, M.B.A.s Turn to ‘Bible’.


Robin Judson & Kate Stoughton Berllineer |

As recruiters, we are already seeing candidates who have been laid off and are searching for their next role. The fact that these individuals were laid off does not detract from their work experience or the value that they bring. As you prepare for what’s next, make sure to focus on what you can contribute

... Read Article


Robin Judson & Kate Stoughton Berliner | Robin Judson Partners

If the possibility of getting laid off is keeping you up at night, here are some ways to get ready and ease your mind. Be prepared Dust off your resume. Even if layoffs are not an issue, we recommend keeping your resume up to date! Consider: Pro Tip: Treat your resume like a living document.

... Read Article

How PE Firms are Dealing with a Hybrid Work Environment

Keith Button | Merger & Acquisitions

Hybrid home-office work arrangements, the demands of a younger generation of up-and-coming executives and pressure to develop more diversity in leadership are all impacting the recruiting efforts of middle-market private equity firms. Read the full article by Keith Button

... Read Article

Now Is Not The Time To Accept A Counter Offer

Robin Judson |

Jack G. complained constantly that his fund did not pay him anywhere close to the value he produced. In his role as a Principal in XYZ Private Equity Fund, he had significant P&L attached to the portfolio companies he worked with, sat on two boards and a deal he originated was about to close. Two

... Read Article

Some Wall Street dealmakers are choosing WFH over big paydays, as return-to-office plans become key to recruiting

Samantha Stokes | Insider

Recruiters told Insider that some senior bankers at the managing-director level and above are saying they won’t consider new roles that are based in the office full-time. Samantha Lee/Business Insider Flexible-work policies are top of mind for many senior bankers, recruiters say. Candidates are turning down roles that don’t allow remote work at least sometimes. Some

... Read Article

Wall Street’s Hottest Commodity: College Grads With Excel Skills

Mary Biekert | Wall Street Journal

All across Wall Street, one price keeps going up: the one for young talent. Big banks can’t hire junior staff fast enough — not even at the new going rate of $100,000 a year. Chalk it up to the pandemic. Or the notoriously long hours. Or youthful realizations that maybe banking isn’t all it’s cracked

... Read Article

How To Handle Job Offers In The Post-Lockdown Economy

Robin Judson |

Many job searches during this post-lockdown period result in candidates receiving multiple offers. How to best handle the scenario.

... Read Article

A Guide To Interviewing From A Career Recruiter

Robin Judson | Robin Judson Partners

We believe we know interviewing because we have been in the financial recruiting business for over 25 years. This is our guide.

... Read Article